Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July

One of the most stirring speeches I know was given by Frederick Douglass for Independence Day: “What to the Slave is the 4th of July.” It was delivered in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. You can find the full speech here; below are some excerpts.

To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! Here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day.

What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!


At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.


You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation — a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together…

Frederick Douglass, who himself escaped from slavery, found reason to hope for the future even as he would “pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.” He saw a future worth fighting for. On this 4th of July, so should we!

Declaring Our Independence Through Education

Just tell me one thing. Will my daughter have a job and not be moving back home after she graduates from your university?

That’s what a dad asked me at a Wesleyan University information session caught on film for the recent higher-education documentary Ivory Tower. Traditionally, a college degree has been a marker of independence as graduates embrace the opportunity to stand upon their own two feet, but today those receiving degrees are often riddled with debt and with doubt. When these graduates wind up back in their parents’ basements, when they feel clueless about how to enter a challenging job market, when they have no idea how to convert their classroom experience into action in the world, they exemplify the failure of the American promise that education makes you free and self-reliant. We in higher education must renew that promise by demonstrating how pragmatic liberal education provides students with greater independence and capacity for productive work well beyond graduation day.

As I show in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, this promise has been part of our history since the earliest days of the republic. It would be hard to find an American figure more devoted to a broad, liberal education than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. He argued that the health of a republic depends on the education of its citizens because only an educated citizenry can push back against the tyranny of the powerful. His “frenemy” John Adams maintained that citizens of all walks of life deserve to learn the principles of freedom:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Although our nation’s commitment to education runs deep, we’ve also long been suspicious about what those kids were really learning. Ben Franklin was pretty sure that some of the guys up at Harvard were largely being schooled in cultivated condescension, and populist criticism of higher ed today rightly condemns the amenities arm race through which supposedly rigorous schools pander to the worst instincts for luxury, partying and callousness. Colleges may be selling the full spa experience to wanna-be investment bankers, but families are often borrowing heavily only to discover that the college diploma is no sure ticket to economic self-sufficiency.

Another of America’s great prophets of independence is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gave his celebrated lectures “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” in the mid-1800s. Emerson saw education as a process through which one learned to absorb more of the world while also acquiring abilities to respond productively to it. Higher education should ignite students’ spirit and intelligence: Colleges only serve us well, he wrote:

“When they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Setting hearts aflame for Emerson didn’t just mean creating a sense of inner transformation – he was committed to the idea that a liberal education made you more effective beyond the university. Becoming more effective in the work you have chosen was at the core of what he called self-reliance. The opposite of self-reliance for Emerson was conformity, a pervasive force in his time as it is in ours.

Hoping to capitalize on the anxieties of parents and students, many today are calling for a more vocational style of learning. Unfortunately, demands for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the guise of “practicality” we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.

Some claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This runs counter to the American tradition of liberal education. From the Revolutionary War through current debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning addresses the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of choices. Liberal education in this tradition means developing independence of mind and habits of critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.

On this July 4 we should dedicate ourselves to recovering the American promise that education should increase our independence. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to self-reliance, to declaring one’s independence through one’s ability to think for oneself and creatively contribute to society. In a quickly shifting economic landscape, it is understandable that some parents and pundits are calling for streamlined learning to train people quickly. But gearing education only to meeting current economic conditions is a ticket to conformity — and also to economic and cultural mediocrity. We need intellectual cross training of the whole person — not nano-degrees in commercial codes and tactics (no matter how digital) sure soon to become obsolete.

The ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, if we truly want to declare our independence, we need to support greater access to pragmatic liberal education.


cross-posted with HuffingtonPost